Journalist Sues US Government for Records on ‘Kafkaesque Harassment’ by Security Agents During Travel

Laura Poitras, 2010

Laura Poitras is a journalist and documentary filmmaker, who recently won an Academy Award for the documentary on NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden called Citizenfour. But, between July 2006 and April 2012, Poitras was “subjected to ‘Secondary Security Screening Selection,” detained and questioned at the United States border on every international flight she took” to the US, according to her recently filed lawsuit.

When traveling from the US, when she was outside the US traveling internationally, and even when she was traveling within the US, Poitras was “occasionally subjected to secondary security screening.” More than 50 times she was given this designation, which allowed Transportation Security Administration (TSA) agents to subject her to extra scrutiny.

On January 24, 2014, Poitras filed Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests with the Department of Homeland Security, Customs and Border Protection (CBP), Citizenship and Immigration Services (CIS), and TSA for “all agency records concerning, naming, or relating to Ms. Poitras.” She also submitted requests to the FBI and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI).

Poitras has, to date, received no records in response to her requests and alleges agencies are wrongfully withholding records [PDF].

“I’m filing this lawsuit because the government uses the US border to bypass the rule of law,” Poitras explained in a press release from the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “This simply should not be tolerated in a democracy.”

“I am also filing this suit in support of the countless other less high-profile people who have also been subjected to years of Kafkaesque harassment at the borders. We have a right to know how this system works and why we are targeted.”

One of those individuals, who Poitras may be referring to, is Jacob Appelbaum. He is a journalist, Tor developer, and WikiLeaks volunteer, who has been stopped and harassed at the US border multiple times. (He has also had his personal data connected to services, such as Twitter and Google, targeted as part of the Justice Department’s investigation into WikiLeaks.)

Airport security agents have previously informed Poitras that she had a “criminal record,” even though that is not true. She has been informed her name was in a “national security threat database.” During one stop, she was told she was on the “No Fly List.” Her laptop, camera, mobile phone, and her notebooks have been seized and copied. One time when she attempted to take notes while she was detained by agents, she was threatened with being put in handcuffs. The agents pretended to fear that she might use the pen as a weapon so she could not create a record of their interaction.

Poitras is not the first to challenge this abuse. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and National Press Photographers Association (NPPA) have challenged suspicionless laptop searches by DHS through a lawsuit filed in 2010.

Detaining Journalists, Abusing Families, and Humiliating American Muslims

Abuse by US security agents at the border has become increasingly common. In February 2014, the podcast, On the Media, aired an episode called “Secrecy on the Border.” The episode focused on how Homeland Security violates the rights of people and refuses to provide any explanations. (more…)